After Liverpool fell to their sixth straight home defeat last weekend, Jurgen Klopp was asked whether this was his lowest point in management. ‘I wish to say no, but yes it is,’ he replied.
Nothing can quite compare, though, with the depths plumbed in the extraordinary season at Borussia Dortmund which carries echoes of what Liverpool are going through now.
As defender Mats Hummels so memorably put it, the 2014-15 season was when Klopp’s previously insuperable side discovered how it felt to be ‘bottom of the table with half the season gone. You realise you’re in the s***, up to your neck’.
Jurgen Klopp endured a dreadful 2014-15 season with Borussia Dortmund (left) and there are echoes of that fall from grace with Liverpool this campaign (right)
The Reds lost their sixth successive game at Anfield against Fulham at the weekend
Then, as now, the slump was prefaced by Klopp taking Dortmund to extraordinary levels of achievement and emotion. Bayern Munich had been swatted aside, symbolically beaten 3-1 at the Allianz Arena as Klopp’s team won the first of two Bundesliga titles, then 5-2 in the German Cup a year later. ‘We can hardly play any better,’ he said at the time.
But gradually, Bayern bounced back — pressing the ball like Dortmund, though expending less energy in doing so. After they reclaimed the title, Klopp described them as ‘just like the Chinese in industry, they see what others are doing and copy it’.
There was no prior warning of the catastrophic fall of 2014-15. Just as Burnley, Brighton and Fulham have done to his Liverpool side, Eintracht Frankfurt, Hertha Berlin and Klopp’s modest former club Mainz all inflicted shock defeats. There were five losses on the trot between late September and early November.
Klopp insisted on the team having a Christmas party. He was adamant they would regroup over the mid-winter break.
But they didn’t. The ultimate indignity was a home defeat to 10-man Augsburg. It sent the team bottom and left Hummels and keeper Roman Weidenfeller standing at the fence on the Yellow Wall, trying to placate fans.
The previous season’s runners-up were deep in the throes of a relegation battle. It was like being ‘in a horror movie,’ Dortmund chief executive Hans-Joachim Watzke told Raphael Honigstein in the excellent Klopp biography Bring the Noise.
It was the first time the world had seen the flipside of Klopp’s emotional intensity. After one game, when a journalist asked him whether his high-intensity football had tired the team out, he sneered that this ‘wretched question’ damaged the team’s morale.
Mats Hummels speaks to angry Dortmund fans after a home defeat by Augsburg
When he went after a journalist following defeat at Wolfsburg, Dortmund’s press officer Josef Schneck told Klopp that his tone was inappropriate. ‘Leave it out,’ Klopp replied. ‘You were one of those s*** journos too.’
Then, as now, injuries played their part. In a little-known book on his Dortmund period, My Seven Years in Black and Yellow, Klopp cites ‘fragmented preparation and above all: no fit players’ as the cause of the trouble.
There was the loss of the irreplaceable Robert Lewandowski, who had left for Bayern. Plus, the national team contingent were exhausted by the exertions of winning the 2014 World Cup.
But other teams studied Klopp’s gegenpressing and began finding answers. The run raised questions of whether Klopp was tactically flexible enough. He did not seem to have a back-up plan when teams sat deep.
‘You play the same ball you’ve played the year before, but the opponents are there,’ Hummels told Honigstein. ‘You play the ball again. And they’re there again.’
The German is presiding over similar shock defeats against smaller sides as six years ago
Some players questioned Klopp’s ideology. There were disagreements behind the scenes. For example, many felt it was a mistake not to play Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang centrally. But Klopp cranked up the engine, rather than change it.
‘To the end, Klopp’s creed remained “Gegenpressing is the best playmaker”,’ said Dortmund writer Freddie Rockenhaus.
The world behind closed doors at Dortmund was anything but calm. The struggle took an understandable emotional toll on Klopp, whose players could see he was suffering.
Still, relationships stayed intact. ‘He never briefed against his players to the media, never played games,’ defender Neven Subotic reflected. ‘It was always about football, everyone knew exactly where they stood with him.’
Klopp waves farewell to Dortmund fans at Signal Iduna Park back in May 2015
Klopp later cited ‘no players being fit’ as a primary problem in Dortmund’s collapse
The recovery came after Klopp had announced he would leave at the end of the season. Not long after a humbling at home to Juventus in the Champions League, he told the board it was time for a change. ‘One big head needed to roll,’ Klopp said at a subsequent press conference.
Dortmund then secured 13 points from their last six games to finish seventh, with his players determined to salvage something from the wreckage before he left. But it was Thomas Tuchel who brought the tactical changes to keep the team moving forward.
Being in the middle of the Klopp revolution sounds something like a perpetual spin in a tumble dryer. ‘I relish the total intensification, when bangs go off everywhere,’ Klopp once said when Dortmund were flying.
‘There is that phase — all or nothing — when people do not dare to breathe.’
Beautiful while it lasts. But teams that thrive on an energy like that are hard to put back together when they begin to malfunction. Liverpool are discovering that.
Liverpool were a team with so much energy and without it the machine is malfunctioning
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